Dealing with Grief: When a Parent Dies

when a parent dies

Splendor in the Grass...Beauty in the Flower...

When Your Parent Dies

by John Kennedy Saynor

Have you ever noticed that there is an unspoken hierarchy of loss in our society? By that I mean that there are some deaths that generate a lot of support and some very little. Think of it. In workshops I have conducted, the following list has been created suggesting you will receive a lot of support after the death of a child or a spouse. But for other losses in the list, you are likely to find yourself without much support at all. (find a local grief care support group)

Death of a child
Death of a spouse
Death of a brother or sister
Death of a mother or father
Death of a grandparent
Death of a friend or neighbor

We are at a point in history when a large percentage of the population finds itself faced with the death or potential death of parents. It is a time when children watch their parents deteriorate physically and often mentally. It is a very difficult time.

Why is the death of a parent so difficult?

The following is a summary of some of the factors that make the death of a parent so difficult.

  • If parents die when they are elderly, their death may be dismissed by "Oh well, she had a good life, didn't she?" If someone says this to you, you can be sure the person saying it doesn't understand the relationship you had with your parent. It may make you feel you don't have reason to grieve. This is not true.
  • It may be that your parents are the most influential and powerful people in your life. Their death means the loss of someone whose advice you value and from whom you seek approval.
  • When a parent dies, you may lose someone who loves you and cares for you in a way that nobody else does. On the other hand, it may be your relationship with your parent was an abusive one. You may, in all honesty, be glad he or she is dead. If that is the case there will be a lot of unresolved issues and feelings for you to work through.
  • The death of a parent brings with it the loss of ties to your childhood and the past. Parents are often the glue that holds a family together. Their death may mean the breakup of the family.
  • The death of a parent may be the catalyst for increased tension among the survivors. Tensions among siblings that have been suppressed for years often explode following a parent's death.
  • When your parents have both died, you become the older generation in your family. A buffer between you and death is removed and you become more aware of your own mortality.
  • The death of your second parent means you are an orphan. The direction, guidance and security your parents may have offered is gone forever. You can no longer "go home".
  • The death of an aging parent often follows a lengthy illness or deterioration of physical or mental health. Family members may find themselves physically and emotionally exhausted. If your parents were younger, you may already be overwhelmed with the demands of your own family or career. You may find your siblings or other family members unable to provide the support you expected to receive from them.
  • It may be that there are many things you wish you had said or done. This is a common experience. If this is the case, seek help from a professional who can help you work through some of the guilt you experience.

Tips for Coping With a Parent's Death

Here are some tips that may help you and the rest of the family recover from the death of your parents.

  1. Resist the temptation to dismiss their death as "timely" or "inevitable". While this is one way to rationalize the loss, it doesn't touch your emotions. You have experienced a significant loss and you need to take time to grieve. The majority of people whose parents die are employed full time. A three day bereavement leave isn't enough time to deal with this loss. Be aware of the need to adjust your personal schedule to take time to grieve.
  2. Work at keeping the lines of communication open between you and your siblings. They understand more than anyone what your loss entails. Remember, each member of the family has a personal loss and each will mourn the death of your parent for different reasons and in different ways.
  3. Find one or two close friends with whom you can talk. People often say, "My friends don't want to hear about this!" All your friends won't, but ask one or two for permission to use them as sounding boards. There are also professionals you may call on: your doctor, your clergy, a counselor or your funeral director.
  4. Do something to memorialize your parent. This could be a donation to a favorite charity. It could be a memorial in your family church. If possible you may want to create a permanent memorial at his or her college or university. Perhaps you would like to plant a tree in memory of your parent. (consider an on-line memorial)
  5. Draw on the resources of your faith to sustain you. How does your faith or spirituality address the issue of dying? How does it help you make sense of life? Does it help you answer your questions?
    Kahil Gibran has written. "And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and seek God unencumbered."

  6. Although your parent is physically dead, he or she will continue to live through you. The values your parent gave you will affect you – for better, or worse – for the rest of your life. Take what is good from them and incorporate it more fully into your life…and be thankful for the good you received.

...find strength in what remains behind

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